SNAP Your Way to Calm: An Innovative Cognitive-Behavioural Model

It’s so simple; it’s almost too simple.

Why haven’t we thought of this before? All it takes is a snap of the finger and poof! Behaviour gets back on track.

Well, ok, maybe it’s not that simple!

Still, the individuals at SNAP Research and Implementation Unit, part of the Child Development Institute in Toronto, have created a powerful model for behaviour management centered around the idea of a single snap!

In it’s 27th year, SNAP it is an award winning evidence-based cognitive-behavioural strategy that teaches kids and their parents emotional regulation, self control, and strategizing. SNAP stands for Stop Now And Plan. It literally involves noticing when you are getting upset, becoming aware of what signs your body is giving you, and then snapping your fingers to cue yourself into proactive mode.

From there, you go through the steps taught at SNAP to make a better plan on how to react.

Chatting to Dr. Leena Augimeri, SNAP’s director, I found out a lot more about how the whole thing works.

“SNAP gets kids and parents to pause and think about what’s going on, what there body does when they get upset, and then come up with a better plan than violence or aggression. The plan has to encompass three things; it needs to make their problem smaller not bigger, it cannot hurt anybody, and it should still make them feel like a winner.”

To me, this sounded very much like a mindfulness practice that uses what we’ve learned in neuroscience about how the brain can change itself, to challenge old patterns of thinking and behaving.

“At the core of the program,” says Augimeri “is the question - how do we best service kids, our most important resource in the world.”

The method supports children aged 6-11 with disruptive behaviour tendencies, many of whom have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect.

The SNAP program is part of a larger strategy that takes a holistic or eco-systemic approach to cultivating wellbeing in the child’s life. In addition to delivering the 12-week group(s), a core component, to children and parents they provide services that include working one-on-one with children and families, in addition, work with children's teachers and other service workers, run entry assessments, and connect the child with other community resources.

12-week Children’s Groups Program

For the kids, each week there is a different topic, such as dealing with group pressure, bullying, anger, rewarding yourself, and dealing with accusations. Through a series of activities, role-plays, facilitated discussions, and meditations, kids get coached to become aware of their reactions and make alternative strategies.

For example, the leaders of the small groups videotape the kids and get them to watch it afterward. The visual record provides a great way for kids to learn their own body patterns when distressed.

“It’s amazing what kids don’t realize they are doing. One kid didn’t even know he made fists when he was angry until he watched the video,” says Augimeri.

The leaders provide the groups with real strategies, such as counting to ten, taking deep breaths, or putting your hands in your pockets, throughout the role plays and always use positive feedback.

Together, Augimeri and I watched a video of two young boys role-playing. One stole the other boy’s ball and the first boy had to deal with it. We watched as he talked himself through the steps, tried a number of times to ask for it back and finally was able to calm his entire body down and deal with the situation.

Afterward the whole group had a discussion about what he did well, how they knew he was getting tense, and what his triggers were. The whole group learned and discovered together.

Parents Benefit too.

At the same time, parents are in another room learning the SNAP method and covering topics like effective child management, listening, setting routines, rewarding the child, and creating parent goals. The leaders get the parents to set goals just for themselves – which apparently is not an easy task. They will set goals like “I will take an hour to rest today”. They will also create goals for their relationship with their child, such as “I will listen to my child more”.

They then have to track their goals, and SNAP has found that most parents are amazed at how the reality of their child’s behaviour is not always as bad as it seems in the mind of the parent.

So what has been the result?

As one kid said to Augimeri, “Whoever invented SNAP must have been a genius!”

Apparently, in the schools that adopt the program, teachers and school staff say that the kids are being nicer, not bullying as much, they are getting along better and becoming more empathic if another kid who is having a hard time. In those instances, the children encourage each other with a snap of the finger!

It’s easy, it’s simple and it’s not difficult to remember.

In recent brain imaging tests, they found that kids pre-SNAP showed high activity in the ventral region of the brain (the flight or fight area), whereas kids who were tested post-program had decreased activation in the ventral area and instead electrodes in the dorsal region (the executive functioning/decision making region) lit up!

“This just shows that the brain does change and that rote memory, repetition and positive reinforcement really work.”

Creating Kinder Societies.

Ultimately, SNAP teaches that emotions are normal and it’s how we regulate them that matter.

Augimeri adds, “In essence, what SNAP is trying to do is create a more thinking and kinder community. Imagine if everyone, before saying a cruel thought, snapped. We would have a much more loving and cohesive society. And that’s what we aim for here.”


Courtney Lawrence is a freelance writer, researcher, innovation consultant and yoga instructor. She has a passion for sharing human stories and building connections between groups of people. She has her own blog that explores spirituality and social relationships.


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